Roundup: Cozy think tank takedowns

Over on Maclean’s yesterday was a longread “exposé” of Canada 2020 as an arm of the federal Liberal party which is exerting all manner of influence, and how potentially inappropriate that may be. But after reading the piece, I found it less a convincing exploration of the think tank than it was simply a recitation of names with “links” to the Liberals, followed by Duff Conacher’s railing about how awful it all is.

Pro tip: If your story relies on Duff Conacher’s analysis of government misdeeds, then it’s probably not worth reading. Conacher is a noted crank who has a history of distorting issues and losing court battles, and who has a number of particularly harmful ideological agendas that involve the destruction of the Canadian Crown, the Westminster system, making all prerogatives justiciable, and one supposes the installation of a Parliamentary Thought Police with himself at the head. (Note: I have had to quote Conacher for stories in the past, but have limited those interactions to narrow questions of ethics legislation rather than the breadth of topics that other rely on his analysis for, just as Anne Kingston does here). In other words, it’s the laziest possible journalist trick in Canada if you want to write a story that makes any government look bad, and you won’t get any meaningful analysis of the issue.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t questions that can be raised about Canada 2020’s cozy relationship with the Liberal Party – but I would say that it’s in all likelihood no more nefarious than the kinds of ideological alignment between something like the Fraser Institute and the Conservative Party, and it’s no more incestuous than the Broadbent Institute is with the NDP (to the point where Broadbent’s PressProgress “news” service is simply a branch of the party’s opposition research bureau).

Part of the problem is that political parties in Canada have looked south with this particular kind of envy about the think tank networks in Washington as something that should be emulated, without necessarily realizing that the American think tank network is intrinsically linked to the fact that their civil service is far more partisan than Canada’s, and that the usual cycle is for parties who aren’t in power to send their senior staffers to bide their time in said think tanks, and when they return to power, they fill their upper civil service ranks from those think tanks, while those who’ve lost power fill their own think tank ranks, and on it goes. That’s not how things work in Canada, and the need for said think tanks is not the same. There has also been talk from some partisans about how they need these think tanks to help them develop policies, as thought that wasn’t the job of the parties’ grassroots membership. So I do think we need to rethink the whole “think tank” system in Canada writ-large and what parties are expecting of them – especially when it comes to policy development – but I’m not sure that this story is doing that job.

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Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: An involuntary nomination

The outcome at the Status of Women committee was not unexpected, had as much sulking and grousing as was to be expected. In a public and not secret vote, the Liberals and NDP members of the committee rejected the Conservatives’ choice of Rachael Harder to chair the committee, and when the Liberals nominated Karen Vecchio in her place, Vecchio tried to back out but was overruled, and those same Liberal and Conservative members voted her in.

And then the bellyaching began. A sour press release was issued about how this was somehow about “bullying and intimidation” of some poor young woman (which is a ridiculous characterisation), but that they would accept the democratic will of the committee. And the pundit class took to Twitter to decry how bizarre it was that a woman was being forced to take the chair of a committee that she didn’t want. I’m not exactly sympathetic to these cries, because this is what happens when you try to pull a stunt for the sake of being a provocateur, as Scheer is trying to do, but you don’t have the votes to back it up. Oh, and then they tried to wedge this into the frame of it being a distraction from the tax proposals, when it shouldn’t need to be said that this was a distraction of the Conservatives’ own making, owing to their particular tactical ineptitude.

Meanwhile, Liberals took to tweeting about how this would have made Harder Andrew Scheer’s “spokesperson” on the committee, which is bizarre and wrong – the chair is the committee’s spokesperson. It’s baffling that they would try to spin it in this fashion. Then again, one shouldn’t be surpised given how badly this whole affair has been for people describing how things work in Parliament. And it shouldn’t surprise me, and yet here we are, that not one journalist writing about this story, nor any pundit commenting on it, remarked about the fact that it makes no sense to put your critic forward as committee chair. None. The chair’s role is to be neutral, to run the meeting, arbitrate rules disputes and to ensure that witnesses and questioners stay within their timelines. They’re not supposed to vote unless it’s to break a tie, which shouldn’t happen very often given the numbers at play. Why would you want your critic – your point person in holding the government and in particular that associated minister, to account – to be hobbled in this way on committee, is baffling. It’s utterly incomprehensible if you follow the basics of how parliament is supposed to work. And yet nobody saw fit to call Scheer out on this fact. These details matter.

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Roundup: Signs Morneau is listening

For all of the bellyaching from those who consider the government’s tax proposals to be a done deal that may not even get enabling legislation but would instead be rammed through by way of a Ways and Means Motion, it looks like those fears are for naught. In a tele-town hall yesterday, Bill Morneau admitted that there are problem areas that need to be addressed, and they plan to take what they’ve heard in the consultations and try to fix the implementing legislation, especially when it comes to things like how it affects the sale of family farms. Economist Lindsay Tedds was listening in, and she provided a play-by-play with some instant analysis here:

https://twitter.com/LindsayTedds/status/913090762035699712

Meanwhile, Chantal Hébert wonders if Morneau can’t pull out a win that will let both sides claim victory, even if Morneau himself emerges wounded from the process. This being said, Hébert makes the point about the lack of applause from the Liberal benches, which Bob Fife made on The West Block on the weekend, and it bugs me that pundits are still trying to read into this because the Liberals stopped clapping in January 2016, except for rare verbal zingers. It’s not indicative of anything other than an attempt to restore a bit of dignity to the exercise of QP, and making a deal out of it to fit a narrative is bad form.

The Senate’s National Finance committee will examine the proposals as well, and the debate getting there contained some of the usual cheek of some particular senators.

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Roundup: Forcing a narrative onto Petronas’ facts

Over the past few days, we’ve seen a spike in concern trolling editorials about the state of natural resources projects in Canada, predicated by Petronas’ decision to cancel the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant in BC. And reading through these editorials, be they from John Ivison, the National Post editorial board, or Licia Corbella (well, that one I’m not bothering to read or link to because she’s a fabulist who doesn’t deserve clicks), but the effect is the same – woe is Canada’s energy sector because of too much government regulation. They also claim that the excuse of market conditions is just political cover.

The problem with that, however, is that it doesn’t actually take the facts into account – it’s merely asserting their pre-existing narrative onto the situation, which is why it’s well worth your time to read Andrew Leach’s exploration of the economic case and conditions for why Pacific NorthWest didn’t go ahead. And when people like Ivison say that projects are going ahead in the US and Australia, Leach explains why (and it has a lot to do with pre-existing infrastructure that BC doesn’t have). So yes, there is a very big market reason why the project was cancelled, and perhaps these editorialists should actually read up on just what that is before they make facile pronouncements, because trying to force a narrative onto the facts is doing a disservice to Canadians.

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Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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Roundup: Trudeau’s missing electoral reform link

Apparently, we’re going to prosecute the demise of electoral reform yet again, after Justin Trudeau was asked about it in his end-of-sitting press conference yesterday. Trudeau, to his credit, was a bit more frank and earnest than he has been on this in the past, and laid out how he had always been in favour of ranked ballots because they eliminate the need for strategic voting, and the opposition was so solidly in their own camps – the NDP for Proportional Representation and the Conservatives for status quo with the added kicker of demanding a referendum – that Trudeau ended up pulling the plug, because he sees PR as bad for the country (he’s not wrong) and referendums even more problematic (again, their track records globally right now are not good).

Of course, everyone freaked out about this answer, and starting howling and frothing at the mouth about how much he’d betrayed them with this promise. Of course, per his promise he did draw up a committee and consult, but he pulled the plug before changing the system.

Part of the problem – aside from the fact that it was a stupid promise to begin with – was that the Liberals on the electoral reform committee didn’t make the case for ranked ballots, nor did they call any witnesses to put forward that position, and apparently disinvited the ones who had already been invited. Having listened to the eager faces on the committee, I’m not entirely convinced that this was simply a cynical ploy the whole time, but I do think a great deal of naïveté was at play, where they were trying to be open-minded – something none of the other parties could say, as they did their utmost to stack the process from the beginning, both with the torqued composition of the committee itself, to the selection of witnesses, to the so-called “consensus” in the report (which was hot garbage, let me reiterate).

The fact that the Liberals played coy about their Trudeau’s preference was certainly a problem. Maybe it’s because they were trying to avoid the myth going around that ranked ballots were “First-past-the-post on steroids,” a characterization based on the analysis of a single poll of second-choice votes of the 2015 election, which was neither authoritative, nor did it take into account the fact that it didn’t produce such a result in Australia, and yet this notion hovered in Canadian media for months. So the handling of this whole affair continues to mystify, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus, can we just bury it already?

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Roundup: Provocative boilerplate

The House of Commons has risen for the summer, but how long it stays risen could be the big question as the Senate has two bills on its plate that they could send back to the Commons. The first of those is the budget implementation bill, after the Commons rejected their amendment. What inflamed tensions however was the boilerplate language that it was rejected for infringing on the rights and privileges of the Commons.

The fact that this is boilerplate eluded many Senators (and yours truly), given that it seemed to be yet another provocation given some of the underlying tensions in the current dispute. Yes, the language comes from Section 80(1) of the Standing Orders, but given that the Senate is trying to assert its independence and authority, the words seemed particularly targeted in this instance, especially as the Prime Minister rather dubiously claimed that the Senate has no ability to amend or reject budget bills when their only actual limitation is that they can’t initiate them.

Having received this rejection, the Senate decided to leave it overnight to think it over, and with luck, tempers will cool and they’ll get the better sense that this is boilerplate straight from the appendix of Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms, 5th edition, that that it likely wasn’t meant as a slight or a provocation. (Probably. But given how ham-fisted and tone-deaf the House Leader has a tendency of being, this isn’t a guarantee). It’s possible that cooler heads will prevail and they will defer rather than letting it ping-pong.

The more contentious bill may in fact be Bill S-3, which amends the Indian Act to remove gender-based discrimination, but the Commons rejected the Senate amendments that would eliminate other forms of discrimination. This particular bill may wind up being more problematic because it’s not a money bill and there is a bigger point of principle about discrimination and rights which a lot of senators get very exercised about (rightfully), and Indigenous senators in this case are particularly sensitive to. There have been suggestions that some are proposing a conference between the chambers to resolve the potential impasse, but we are not there yet.

Part of the calculation is that because the Commons has risen, a game of chicken is now being declared, where they are essentially daring senators not to recall them to deal with these amendments, and like Peter Harder has been doing, there will be all kinds of voices going on about the expense of such a recall. I think it’s overblown, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Commons has used such a tactic to try and force the Senate’s hand into backing down on passing bills at the end of the sitting.

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Roundup: Demanding ATIP perfection may be the enemy of the good

I find myself torn about the government announcement on new legislation to amend the Access to Information Act because on the whole, they made most of the changes that they promised to, but they failed to uphold one promise, which was to make the Act apply to the PMO and minister’s offices. And yes, We The Media let them know how displeased we were about it.

Part of the problem here is that like so many of their other election promises, it may have been a stupid one – kind of like their promise around electoral reform. Why? Because it was always going to be problematic to promise access to cabinet documents, and there’s a very good reason for that, because much of that information should remain private because it will otherwise damage the ability for there to be unfettered advice to ministers or between cabinet colleagues, and they need to have space to make these kinds of deliberations, otherwise the whole machinery of government starts to fall apart.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, the better discussion would have been to have specific proposals as to what falls under cabinet confidence. Currently the Information Commissioner has some determination around that, and with the changes in this bill, the onus will be reversed – the government will need to convince her (and if that fails, the courts) that information should remain secret, as opposed to her having to take the government to court to get that access. That’s significant.

There is a lot of good in these changes, but I fear that it will be lost amidst the grumbling that it didn’t go far enough. And let’s face it – sometimes We The Media are our own worst enemies when we use Access requests for cheap outrage stories rather than meaningful accountability, and then wonder why the government suddenly clamps down and turns to message control, and worst of all, nobody wants to talk about that problem. That may wind up making things worse for everyone in the end.

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Roundup: Not seeing the cannon fodder

After thinking a bit more about it, and seeing some of the reaction over the Twitter Machine over the weekend, I find myself coming back to Chantal Hébert’s weekend column about Trudeau treating his rookie ministers like cannon fodder, and I really have a hard time with it. Part of why I have difficulty is because it ignores some of the actual day-to-day realities as to why there were so many rookies in cabinet, which was that there were not a lot of veterans to choose from, and in order to maintain regional and gender balance, while still ensuring that you had enough veterans to do the other jobs of being a party in power, like having committee chairs who had some experience, then of course you were going to have rookies in cabinet. As well, the fact that Trudeau is behaving far more in the ethos of government by cabinet than his predecessor means that some of these rookies are going to be saddled with responsibility (and yes, this is a far less centrally-controlled cabinet, as I’ve spoken to staffers who used to work at Queen’s Park and have regaled us with the vast differences between how things operated between them).

I also find the implicit notion that it’s young women ministers being thrown under the bus to be a problem, because I’m not so sure we’d hear the same complaints if it were a male minister who has been handed a tough file and it doesn’t go according to the expectations of the pundit class. Yes, Joly made a bad call with Madeleine Meilleur, but I would hardly call Joly incapable, and she is juggling a lot of other files on her plate at the moment. She’s not incompetent, and Trudeau hasn’t thrown her under any bus. Maryam Monsef? She handled a file that was basically a flaming bag of dog excrement and managed to come out intact with a promotion to a line department with a hefty agenda (whereas “Democratic institutions” is a make-work project with staff assigned from PCO). Monsef did her job, better than most people give her credit for, and the fact that the Rosemary’s Baby that was electoral reform got smothered in the cradle is not a black mark on her because she didn’t micromanage the committee. The fact that the Liberals on that committee dropped the ball and didn’t make their own case, and in fact let themselves be railroaded by the other parties is not Monsef’s fault (though one has to wonder how much blame to assign to her for letting Nathan Cullen manipulate her into accepting the “proportional” nonsense in committee make-up that doomed it). If anyone blames Karina Gould for electoral reform being cancelled, they’re the ones at fault – not Gould. Trudeau made that call (rightfully), and has taken his lumps for it. And if Hébert or anyone else (like Ed Broadbent for one) thinks that these poor young women should have been either kept out of cabinet instead of being given difficult files and a chance to prove themselves because they’re women, then I think that’s a bigger problem. I’m not seeing any cannon fodder – just some ministers doing their best with some of the problems handed to them.

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